New interfaith steps, from celebration of Luther to COP-22 statement

October 28, 2016

Catholics and Lutherans are joining together in many efforts, from the below to a call for all societies and nations to get off of fossil fuels, which will be released next month.   

By Iacopo Scaramuzzi, cross-posted from the Vatican Insider

“In the 1980s no one would have believed that Lutherans and Catholics were capable of reaching an agreement on the justification question, as was the case in 1999 and just a few years ago, had someone spoken about a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Martin Luther’s Reformation, many would have believed it to be impossible…” Rev Martin Junge, Secretary General of the of the Lutheran World Federation was invited by the Vatican press office to present the Pope’s upcoming trip to Lund, Sweden, next Monday to Tuesday, to commemorate the anniversary of the start of the Lutheran Reformation (1517) which falls next year. He was joined by the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch. He emphasised that the two Churches were on the “right track” to reaching an agreement on pending questions relating to the Church, the ministry and the Eucharist, predicting that a second joint declaration was not far off. The director of the Holy See press office, Greg Burke, underlined that Benedict XVI would have undertaken a similar trip.

Francis sets off from Rome on 31 October and lands at Malmö airport in southern Sweden at 11 am. Here, he will be welcomed by the Swedish prime minister Stefan Loefven. The Pope will lunch in private, while two lunches will be held in his honour, one offered by the prime minister himself to the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and one by the Lutheran World Federation to Cardinal Koch. After a courtesy visit to the Swedish royal family at Lund’s Kungshuset palace in the afternoon, Francis will attend the two most important meetings of his visit. First up, he will lead an ecumenical prayer service with Lutheran leaders in Lund cathedral near the royal palace at 2:30 pm, then he will take part in the second ecumenical event in Malmö arena, where he will meet delegations of different Christian Churches around the world, present for the occasion. The city of Lund was chosen because this is where the Lutheran World Federation is based and the papal visit intends to commemorate not just the 500th anniversary of the Reformation but also the 50 years of dialogue between this federation and the Holy See. Since Sweden’s only Catholic diocese and nunciature are in Stockholm, the Pope will be staying at a medical research centre near Lund, where the episcopal conference usually meets. On the second and final day of his visit, Tuesday 1 November, All Saints day, which he will dedicate to the Catholic community, the Pope will celebrate mass at Malmö’s Swedbank Stadion before setting off back to Italy at 12:30 pm. He will be flying from the local airport and is scheduled to reach Rome at 3:30 pm.

The Pope’s visit is named after the report on unity, published by the international Catholic-Lutheran Commission in 2013: “From conflict to union is also the title of a report.” Answering journalists’ questions, Burke explained: “I think Benedict XVI would also have undertaken such a commemorative trip, it makes sense given how long it took to prepare this event.”

During his visit to Lund, Burke underlined, the Pope will speak in his native Spanish, not least because Sweden is a major migrant destination and many members of the minority Catholic community (119,000 people out of a total population of almost 10 million) are immigrants. Among those who are due to speak during the ecumenical evening in Lund, is a female refugee from South Sudan. The Bishop of Aleppo will also be present as Caritas and the Swedish Church have been working together for as long time, trying to get aid to the war-torn country and deal with other emergencies. “The Lutheran Federation fully comprehends the Pope’s pastoral needs,” Junge told journalists who asked him whether the second day, which was not initially part of the schedule, risked watering down the ecumenical significance of the visit.

What makes this visit different, Koch said, is that “there is going to be a joint commemoration” while in the past, separate commemorations were held, sometimes with “triumphalistic or polemic” undertones. “I am a little bit concerned that the visit will relativized, focusing on the question: what is going to be new? In any case, I don’t know what the Pope is going to say: we know the Pope always has a surprise or two up his sleeve but we knew what they were beforehand they would no longer be a surprise.” During the press conference, Burke said the Pope is not expected to say anything new regarding intercommunion, but recalled that Francis demonstrated a significant receptiveness during his visit to the Lutheran Church of Rome in November 2015. His response tot hose who asked him whether he would use the opportunity to revoke Martin Luther’s excommunication, Koch said “he cannot revoke it because the excommunication ended with his death. An excommunication ends with a person’s death and a Pope does not have the power to change things in eternal life… What we can say about Luther and also learn from him is another thing. For example, the beautiful speech pronounced by John Paul II in Mainz or the one delivered by Benedict XVI in Erfurt, when he underlined that Luther’s greatest concern was the centrality of God and Christ or what the Pope said on his way back from Armenia, when he underlined Luther’s good intentions.”

In answer to those who recalled a statement made by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who said “Catholics have nothing to celebrate on 31 October 1517 which marks the beginning of division in the Church,” Cardinal Koch replied with a joke first: “Celebrations has different meanings in Italian and German… in Italian you can celebrate anything!” The cardinal then underlined that the joint document of 2013, from conflict to communion, touches on three different aspects of Catholic-Lutheran relations: gratitude for the progress achieved, “and that we can celebrate”, hope that further steps forward will be taken “and this too we can celebrate” and the consideration that Luther did not intend to divide the Church but to reform it, “but this was not possible, in the end there was division and a horrific denominational war: this we will not celebrate but it is something we need to reflect on further in order to move forward”.

As far as co-operation between the two Churches on practical and social issues is concerned, Koch urged against “contrasting” different forms of ecumenism: spiritual, cultural and practical ecumenism because the different paths must be aligned. “In the 1980s,” Junge added, “no one would have believed that Lutherans and Catholics were capable of reaching an agreement on the justification question, as was the case in 1999 and just a few years ago, had someone spoken about a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Martin Luther’s Reformation, many would have believed it to be impossible… This tells me that impossible things do sometimes become possible. The world we live in today is a fragmented world that is wounded as a result of war and by walking together we send out a powerful sign. It is a big help in practical terms but is also important in helping us grow together in mutual trust.”

Different issues, however, still divide Lutherans and Catholics. Both Junge and Koch underlined that the joint declaration on the justification highlights that agreement has not been reached on three points relating to the ministry, the Church and the Eucharist. “There is an effective dialogue underway on a regional level, regarding these issues. We are on the right track towards resolving these three issues and we could move in the direction of a new declaration on these points.”